Some Words about Wordcounts

For the past three months, I’ve been working on an R&R for an agent.

In part this has been to improve my novel’s wordcount.

I’m extremely grateful to be given this second chance. Grateful that the agent even read the manuscript, even requested it; that they weren’t put off enough by my initial wordcount to reject my query out of hand.

Because in the world of traditional publishing, as someone on the outside looking to break in, wordcount matters. And matters a whole lot more if your book is “too long” (rather than “too short”).

As my book was.

And still is (if much closer now to what is considered “acceptable” for a debut novel).

(No I won’t say what it is, or was.)

With some agents, a too-long wordcount can indeed see your work (form) rejected without their reading a single word of the story.

Wordcounts of books is also a tightly-held secret in the publishing world (hence my own reticence). Almost without exception, publisher webpages and book retail sites don’t provide this information. Instead they give page counts, for which the number of words per can vary wildly depending on a book’s physical dimensions and typesetting.

This information is closely guarded because wordcount is equated to money. A longer book costs more in both raw materials and people power (varying forms of editing) to produce. A book that is 120,000 words is said to be substantially longer than one that is 100,000 words, even though it’s roughly only 30 double-sided pages more.

This is said to be a substantially larger investment from a debut author, who is unknown and yet to prove their earning power. Maybe it actually is.

The long and short of it

The thing I hate most about the wordcount discourse—beyond the fact that more and more these days, I find novels for whom the story is noticeably sacrificed to make a shorter product—is all the moralizing that comes with longer wordcounts, especially on social media.

Without even reading them, manuscripts that are anywhere over 120,000 words are assumed to be insufficiently edited.

Shorter stories are described as being “sparse”, “subtle”, “lean”, “sophisticated”, and “clever”.

Longer books, meanwhile, are called “bloated”, “draggy”, “sluggish”, needing their “fat” trimmed, actually the size of two books, and “self-indulgent”, which is the same fatphobic language that gets used against larger people, again without knowing anything more about them beyond what can be readily observed.

Some stories are just longer and more conceptually complex, requiring more words and pages to both lay out the plot and bring it to a satisfying conclusion.

It does occasionally happen that longer debuts get published. Actually, it happens often; the majority of debuts that hit the New York Times bestsellers list are longer than proscribed wordcounts, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.

But in essence, it happens because there are exceptions to every rule. “Don’t think you are the exception, though”, emerging writers are told. The fact that these exceptions do exist, however, means that someone obviously believed it of themself long before receiving industry confirmation that they are indeed one of the chosen ones.

One who is permitted to flout the stated rules—who’s voice and ideas will be privileged by not being edited down. One behind whom the industry has decided to throw their full economic and marketing support.

Because that’s how bestsellers are made. The books that sell the best are the ones that had the highest amount of investment poured into them. And with that kind of commercial support, it doesn’t matter if a book is 120,00 words or 420,000 words.

Bestsellers aren’t made; they are paid for. And we read them because the industry tells us these stories are worthy and vital to the cultural conversation, in which we all want (or should want) to participate.

But I get it. Publishing an unknown debut author is a financial risk and publishers, like all industries under our capitalist society, seek to make as much money as possible.

I don’t begrudge it; I just wish more people—especially on social media—would recognize and/or be honest about it and stop with the judgement over wordcount.

Wordcount is an economic consideration, not an artistic one, as clearly demonstrated by the fact that many authors’ second and subsequent books are longer than the first.

A story that is longer isn’t automatically in need of editing. The fact that more emerging writers appear incapable of writing long (professing online to being “under-writers” rather than “over-writers”) doesn’t mean the over-writers need to be made the opposite of what they are.

And most of all, stories should be given the chance to speak for themselves within the querying space where automatic deletions based on wordcount alone don’t exist.

Within such a space, if an agent read my submission and deemed it overwritten, I would accept that. For so too would it also be afforded its fair chance to become the next money-making sensation the industry is waiting for.


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9 thoughts on “Some Words about Wordcounts

  1. Another reason to consider carefully what you’re doing if you want to be traditionally published. And possibly to read some James Patterson to see if you’re missing anything in the short department.

    Length affects pace affects sentence structure and richness and complexity.

    Just one more of the tools an author has at her disposal, and which should be used judiciously in every sentence, paragraph, scene…

    It may be hard to believe, but I pare relentlessly. The last thing I want to hear is ‘bloated’ (though we could cut it with the disease metaphors and I wouldn’t be unhappy).

    ‘Too long’ is really too long for a particular story, genre, audience. I don’t think anyone complains if they are being richly rewarded for their time by an immersive world.

    You’re right about getting over the threshold or transom: agents (I presume) know their markets and what they might be able to place, and are going to be reluctant to push a novel that needs bloodletting when they have so many other submissions that don’t. They live by reputation.

    And that’s the key: the agent has many more submissions – but the author who wrote at length has only one current offering. So they’ll have to forgive us if we get a little testy about lopping off a limb.

    It is all in service of story – and target audience. If I didn’t find some readers who love what I write, volubly, I would be wondering what to cut.


    • Traditional publishing, like any industry, has its rules and it price of admission. For most people it is indeed a shorter book. I totally agree that “too long” depends on the story and the genre, which all the more so makes the snap judgements that are so common online frustrating.

      I’m definitely willing to “play the game” if that’s what’s necessary, recognizing that writing a brand new, shorter novel might well be quicker and easier than continually trying to pare down the one I already have. But at the same time, I refuse to accept right out of the gate that I’m not the exception. Somebody has to be; it could be me. It costs nothing but time and emotional energy (admittedly these are present in ever-decreasing amounts) to take my shot as if I am, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.


      • I’m chuckling; I refused to accept that I’m not the exception YEARS ago – I don’t have to bandwidth not to believe what I believe. PC is unique – no one but me could write it the way it is.

        Take your shot as many times as you have the stomach for (including, if you get the brass ring, the ‘traditiona’ author unfriendly contract); just remember it’s not the only game in town any more.

        You’re young – you have time, discipline. And you can go traditional with one series, and then put out your heart-novels exactly the length you want them (up to the limits on PoD) – and get a fairer share of the royalties.

        I can only go forward.


  2. Great post and points! I always look at word counts of recently published books in my genre and I’m like nope, that debut is not following the “rules.” I really wish there were a better method and a better framework. *sigh*


  3. How depressing that traditional publishing has become so straight jacketed in this regard. But like you Janna, I can’t blame the publishing houses if they need to follow a formulaic approach to turn a profit and stay in business. Thank goodness self-publishing is so simple these days so you can write for the sheer pleasure of doing so, in whatever manner you wish.
    One of my favourite books of all time (Keeper of the Crystal Spring by Naomi & Deborah Baltuck set in Norman England) is a huge affair, a real epic. OK it overstayed its welcome a little in the end but such a book could never be written under commercial constraints.


    • Yes, self-publishing is definitely here to stay, and a great option for many people. I’d like to see more activity from digital only (or even digital first) publishers. A longer ebook may take more editing than a short one, but all those electrons of text are otherwise free.

      Liked by 1 person

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